The worshippers were reciting the Kol Nidre Yom Kippur service. It was probably around 1760.
Their rabbi, the Baal Shem Tov, looked troubled.
Suddenly they heard a long piercing note from a flute.
Who would dare interrupt prayers by using a musical instrument—a traditionally forbidden activity on Yom Kippur, Shabbat and other holidays?
The Young Shepherd
In one version of the story, the “culprit” was an uneducated shepherd boy, perhaps of limited intelligence.
The Baal Shem Tov radiated joy and relief. He explained, “You are probably wondering why I was so troubled. I perceived that God was not accepting our prayers. I feared that this Yom Kippur, we were not worthy of His forgiveness.
This boy’s heartfelt musical note broke through to God and lifted all our prayers to Heaven.”
The Tale Retold
During the Ruderman Family Foundation Jewish Leadership Summit on Inclusion that was held last June, at least one speaker mentioned this story. The boy with the flute represented people on the autistic spectrum and others with disabilities who connect to God in what society considers to be disruptive or even “inappropriate” ways. The Baal Shem Tov’s reaction was interpreted to require that synagogues accept Jews with disabilities in worship services, even if they do not adhere to the usual rules of decorum. Excluding anyone from worship violates the sanctity of the Divine Image in which we are all created.
Synagogues, and by extension all venues of Jewish activity, should accommodate Jews with disabilities—not as a favor, but as a God-Given mandate. In addition, as noted by Rabbi Mark Penner, Jews of all abilities can and should develop a relationship to God, expressed in their own way.
Rabbis, educators and other conference attendees, who disagreed about religious dogma and who might not feel comfortable in each others’ synagogues unanimously supported our participation in Jewish activities. Such reconciliation brings light to a world in which too many factions have hijacked God to justify false and sometimes cruel doctrines.
Why is the Tale Unfinished?
I found myself asking:
What happened on the following Yom Kippur?
Did the boy with the flute burst in as he had done the year before? What about when he reached adulthood?
Did the other worshippers eventually conclude, “Poor uneducated ‘child.’ He can’t ever really be part of our congregation. There are a lot of disruptive disabled people like him.”
Did the Baal Shem Tov realize that the flute was crying for structure and other support to help the boy worship more easily? He would then have assigned an open-minded tutor to the boy, to determine whether both his education and decorum could be improved.
That intervention enabled the boy to recite some prayers, and reserve his flute-playing to his home and to pastures, where God also cherishes prayer from the heart.
It is a temptation (to which I sometimes succumb) to highlight one story or biblical passage and transform it into a cornerstone of a philosophy or initiative involving disability.
Many of us with disabilities do not welcome a “welcome” which categorically assumes that some of us need not follow rules. We prefer a welcome that features accommodations that we ourselves request and expects that we can and should reach our Jewish potential.
And what about that Divine Spark which exists in all of us?
In my next blog, biblical and Midrashic sources will broaden and illuminate the qualities of that Divine Spark, and, suggest how to apply it to disability philosophy and initiatives.